There was a time when the name "Confucius" was a punch line in American culture.

Now, it is more like a lifeline. The more Americans learn about China, the more they realize how little they know. And with China poised to become a major political force, a valuable market and key supplier, ignorance about the country is hardly bliss. It's more like just plain ignorance.

That's why we are cheered by the new Confucius Institute at the University of Utah. By partnering with Sichuan University, the U. becomes only the 13th institution in the United States to have a center for Chinese culture.

The center will serve the students here and in China, but more to the point, it will enhance the Utah community, as well.

It displays the kind of forward thinking that communities hope to see from colleges and universities.

The Salt Lake City campus will have two full-time language teachers from the Sichuan province, as well as the chance to play host for a variety of cultural events. The school already has more than 30 courses in its Asian Studies program, but the Confucius Institute will hoist studies to a new level.

Utah's lawmakers have taken a strong interest in China, traveling there over the past year. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., with his diplomatic background, knows China well and knows the value — indeed, the necessity — of extending a hand across the water to Asia.

But more than a window into another part of the world, the institute will further the arts in Utah by staging operas, offering art exhibits and providing forums, poetry readings and lectures.

For students interested in business, government service, religion and other fields, the language component will be vital. In fact, being able to speak Mandarin Chinese may be one of the most impressive things that graduates can put on a resume.

Given the name of the new institute, it seems almost obligatory to close with a saying from the Chinese philosopher.

We won't disappoint.

"If a man takes no thought about what is distant," Confucius says, "he will find sorrow near at hand."